What is my calling?

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Calling.  It is one of the most nebulous concepts in mission.  We all know we need it.  We all agree it’s an essential requirement for a cross-cultural mission worker.  Hopefully we all believe we have it.

Yet we find it very difficult to define it.

Calling, as you will recall from our Guide to Going, can be very personal and subjective, may vary from one person to another but can generally be defined as a deep-seated conviction that God has a task for you to do, or a place for you to be.  It is discerned both spiritually and practically by a community working together to determine what is right for you – a community made up of family, friends, church and agency who together confirm your course of action.

And every now and then, like the pillar of smoke in the wilderness, the calling moves on.  Sometimes it takes us to a new activity, or a new field, and sometime it brings us out of the mission field into some other form of ministry.  The problem for each of us at the moment, when we can’t be where we feel called to, or do what we feel called to, is knowing whether the calling has moved on or not.

So we begin a time of prayer and reflection, asking God for guidance.  We discuss with friends, church and agency what the nature of that call might be now.  Like a person lost in the mountains (I know plenty about that!) we retrace our steps to the last point we were confident of where we were, and we re-examine the map.  We do this by asking ourselves some deep questions:

  • What did I originally feel called to do?
  • How has that calling changed over the years?
  • Is what I normally do still true to that calling?
  • Have I taken on roles and responsibilities I am not called to?

In doing this, we can get back in touch with our sense of calling.  But that is only half the problem.  What if we are confident in our calling to a place we can’t currently be, or a role we can’t currently do?  Isn’t that part of the evidence that the calling has gone?

Not necessarily.  Calling doesn’t necessarily guarantee an easy journey.   Was David stilled called to be king of Israel while he was living in the wilderness on the road from a mad tyrant?  Was Paul still called to be an apostle to the Gentiles while stuck in prison in Caesarea?  Or was Moses called to lead his people out of slavery when Pharaoh kept saying no?  Let’s look further at his story.

Reading Exodus 3 we cannot doubt his spectacular calling, yet he experienced the doubts of the Elders of the sons of Jacob, the opposition of Pharaoh and his magicians, an impassable sea, rebellion among his leaders, jealousy in his own family, people who wanted to go back, hunger, drought, overwork and warfare, not to mention 40 years in the wilderness.  Had his calling deserted him?  Perhaps he wondered that in his darkest moments of despair and frustration.  But we know the rest of the story, and although Moseshe never actually completed the task of leading his people into the Promised Land, they still revere him as the man who brought them out of slavery, gave them the Law, and built them into a nation. Not a bad heritage.

So what about us?  We’ve already looked at who we are when we can’t do, and what we can do when we can’t do what we should be doing?  How do we fulfil our calling remotely?

We can pray for people and situations we know.  We can keep in touch via social media.  Perhaps we can pastor or teach remotely.  We can advocate for our host nation among our friends.  We can probably find people from our host nation in our sending country, and can get to know and support them.  We can support recruitment and training of new workers for that field.  So although we can’t actually be there, there is still a lot we can do to fulfil our calling.  Just because we are temporarily frustrated in our calling, it doesn’t mean our calling has been revoked.  It may just look different for a while.

 

Last week: What do I do?

Previous week: Who am I?

 

What do I do?

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“What do you do?”

It’s a very normal question here in the West.  We ask it fairly early on in a conversation with a stranger.  Our doing defines us, as we looked at last week.  But in the field we might not introduce ourselves as “I’m a mission worker” for a number of reasons: security, misunderstanding, or just ignorance of what a mission worker might be.

So we probably say, at least at the outset ‘I’m a lecturer (in a Bible college)’, ‘I do admin’, ‘I run a business’, or ‘I’m a community worker.’  All of these could be true but they are drilling a bit deeper into what we do rather than who we are.  So who are we when we can’t do what we’re supposed to be doing?

Many of us have found creative ways around the challenges we are facing by not being able to meet people face-to-face.  We can lecture by webinar, we can pastor by Zoom, we can lead church using Youtube.  But for some of us, what we do can’t easily be done online, particularly if we’re not even in our host country or we’re locked down at home.

At times like these, we need to widen our focus and look beyond the field and project that we feel is our work.  How are church planters taking the opportunity to plant a church in their sending country?  How can Bible teachers help their sending church develop its biblical literacy?  Can we continue to do what we do in a different context?  St Paul was a good example of this: sitting in prison, unable to be in the market place telling people about Jesus, he simply carried on telling people – in this case the prisoners.  Why else would the prisoners not run away from the broken jail in Philippi (Act 16:28)?  Paul had already led them to the Lord and they followed his lead.  Also, unable to visit and care for the churches he was responsible for, he started writing them letters.  He found new ways of carrying on his ministry in different circumstances.

Or focusing wider still, we could pay attention to our more general activity rather than the specific.  We are mission workers – we do mission!  The word ‘mission’ comes from Latin and means ‘sent’, and is related to the words message and messenger.  In other words, we are people who are sent with the message of good news!  While we usually interpret this as being sent abroad, in fact we are sent into the whole world.  It is not important whether we’re sent to the other side of the world or the other side of the street – we are still sent!

So a question for each of us to engage with is:

If I can’t go to the country I’ve been sent to, can I be sent to the country where I am?

So how can you continue to bring good news into the lives of those around you, even under these challenging circumstances?  One family I know, forced to stay in their sending country due to lack of travel opportunities to their field, but given free accommodation by a church they don’t know, have taken the view that this is a time to serve that church, build links with it and invest in its ministry.  No doubt they will be a blessing.  And they are still doing mission.

 

Last week: Who am I?

Why did nobody see this coming?

I spent the first two months of this year working hard as part of a team planning a conference which takes place regularly every two years.  It was due in mid-March and we ended up cancelling it because of Covid-19 with just one week’s notice.

In the months that have elapsed since I have reflected on that, and the many other events, programmes and services that have been derailed by Covid-19, and the big question I have been left with is why a group of people who claim to be led by the Spirit, and together have the mind of Christ, were so blissfully unaware of what God knew was going to be happening.

In Genesis, God gave Joseph a dream which enabled him to plan for the famine which was coming.  God sent Jonah to Nineveh to warn them of impending destruction.  In Acts 11 God used a prophet called Agabus to warn the church of a coming famine, so that they could prepare.  Paul was regularly warned about the impending suffering he would face (Acts 20:23).  The unchanging God, who is the same yesterday, today and forever, warned people of the trouble that was coming.

I am sure such experiences still continue even though I’ve not experienced them.  I recall hearing a story, though I can’t find it online, about a church in central New York city which felt led during the summer of 2001 to buy in stocks of blankets and bottled water, with the result that on 9/11 they were able to be a resource to the injured and the rescuers of the Twin Towers.

Yet I have heard no story of any church or agency having any inkling at all that Covid-19 was coming, though I’m sure now I’ve published this that the reports will come flooding in.  Whether you believe in prophetic gifts, or Holy Spirit-inspired common sense, how come the millions of Christians on this planet who all talk to God daily didn’t have a clue?

Having reflected on this, I’ve come to a conclusion:

It’s not that God didn’t warn us, it’s that we weren’t listening.

For example, I never once prayed about whether we should organise our conference; we just did it because we do it every two years, and I asked God to bless it.  I suspect many of us were so busy asking God to bless our plans that we didn’t even question whether they were his plans.  Quite possibly most of our planning meetings are more like secular management meetings (topped and tailed with a prayer and maybe even a biblical reflection) than a discussion reminiscent of Acts 15 where different people relate how God is leading them and together they come to an agreement that “seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).

Perhaps now would be a good time, instead of us asking God to ‘bless the work of our hands’ each day, to be asking ‘What are you doing today, God, and can I join in?’  It may result in havoc in our programmes, but an incredible Spirit-led involvement in the lives of random strangers.  I wonder if this was what Ananias was doing when God told him to go and pray for Saul (Acts 9:10).  We know nothing about Ananias – who he was and what he did – but he clearly was able to listen to God.

Perhaps now is the time to start dismantling much of our structures and become more flexible and spontaneous as we seek to lead people to the Lord.  Maybe it’s time for our churches and agencies to be led not by those who are good organisers or planners but by contemplatives and reflectives who are comfortable spending time listening to God, people who may have little knowledge of how to manage processes but great knowledge of what God is doing in this world.

Could the Age of Martha finally be ending, and the Age of Mary dawning?

So what was that all about?

I’ve been hearing stories recently about short-term mission workers whose time abroad has been rudely interrupted by Covid.

Young people on a gap year who had barely got into their stride in the field when their agency called them back home.

People on a DTS who can’t go on outreach.

Medical students planning an elective abroad whose plans have been frustrated.

For many of these people it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to serve God abroad, and now it’s not happening.  Perhaps it’s never going to happen.

Many of these people are disappointed, confused and angry.  They need to process this.  They have questions like “Why did God send me abroad only to bring me back again?”

An interesting Biblical case to look at is John Mark.  He went with his uncle Barnabas and with Paul on their first mission trip to Cyprus.  We don’t know if they originally planned to go on to what is now Turkey, but they did, and for some unknown reason Mark went home.  We don’t know why.  Perhaps he was homesick, perhaps he didn’t like the food.  Quite possibly he didn’t get on with Paul!  Whatever the reason, Paul clearly regarded it as desertion and refused to take him on the next trip (Acts 15:36-41).

Mark could just as well have asked “what was all that about?”  He’d been willing to travel for the Lord.  He’d stepped out in faith and perhaps thought of a life in ministry.  And now he was back home in Jerusalem.  Fortunately his uncle believed in him and took him with him on another trip to Cyprus.  This gentle restoration led Mark back into a life of mission, associated with both Peter and again Paul.

So for people grappling with their disappointment and frustration, here are few suggestions:

Find a Barnabas.  Identify someone in your church (preferably with mission experience) who can mentor you through this, help you ask the right questions and seek God for what comes next.  Or perhaps your agency can find you a staff member or retired mission worker to do this.  Don’t grapple with it alone.

It’s not about you.  OK, so you wanted to experience another culture, enjoy different food, enhance your CV.  How much of that was about you, and how much was being available to serve God wherever he wants you to be?  Yes, there is an element of personal enjoyment in much of our travel, but if God’s now saying he wants you here, how are you going to get on and do that with as much enthusiasm as you were pouring into your overseas mission?

It’s not once in a lifetime.  So you were going to take a gap year before going to university.  Great!  But just because that opportunity has been taken away doesn’t mean that was your one shot at it.  You could go after university.  Or later, in between jobs.  In fact, you can go any time at all.  Who goes straight from uni onto the career ladder and stays there for 40 years anyway?  I took my gap year when I was 32, taking a year out from my job to do short-term mission.  I just never went back!

God told me to do this, and I did, and it didn’t work out.  This is perhaps the most challenging of all questions, and it’s too big to unpack in a single paragraph so we’ll come back to it in a couple of weeks’ time.  But just as a spoiler, God isn’t necessarily looking for success – he’s looking for obedience and faithfulness.

Mission work is full of frustrations and while with grace and support long-termers may learn to take these in their stride, for many short-termers it can be their first taste of things not working out and it comes as a nasty shock.  We’ve blogged a few times about disappointment, why not take a look at some of the other blogs and see if there is some help in there for you?

When is a risk not a risk?

In these times of uncertainty, there is a lot of talk about keeping safe.  The current lockdown is designed to keep people safe.  We exhort each other to stay safe.  And I see people wearing facemasks who a month ago would have laughed at east Asian tourists for doing so.  The risk level has changed, and so has our response to managing it.

It’s natural to want to stay safe, to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our community from harm.  Safe is the sensible choice.  But safe can also be the selfish choice.  Safe can mean we’re not there for others.  Safe can mean we contribute to food (and toilet roll!) shortages by hoarding enough for ourselves.  Safe can mean we board up the doors and windows to keep danger out, but in doing so we cut ourselves off from neighbours.  In the parable of the talents, a slave was punished for playing it safe because “I was afraid” (Matthew 25:14ff).

There are times when we are called to nail our colours to the mast and step out in faith.  That doesn’t mean we are blithely nonchalant about risk.  It means we evaluate risk, take steps to mitigate it, but then step out in faith to do what we are called to do.  Whether it was Hudson Taylor or Søren Kierkegaard who first observed “Without risk there is no need for faith”, it is undeniably true.  While we play it safe, our faith withers on the vine.

Over 25 years ago, when I first felt the call to the mission field and planned to go to live in post-civil-war Mozambique, a friend asked me what I thought the risks were.  It took me a while to answer as I reflected on it.  I thought about my financial well-being if I couldn’t get a job when I returned.  I thought about my health, living far from a hospital in a country plagued with tropical diseases.  I thought about my prospects of finding a wife and bringing up children in that environment.  I thought about my mortality, going to a country littered with landmines and where guerillas still roamed the countryside.

I realized that all the things I stood to lose were not particularly important to me.  What was more important to me was, as St Paul wrote:

that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, …that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.

(Philippians 3:8-11)

My answer was “There is no risk.  A risk only exists when what you stand to lose is of value to you.”

That’s not a licence to be irresponsible when the lives of others may depend on you.  But let us be people who in this current environment are not known for our fear but for our faith.

Big trouble

A couple of weeks ago we observed that even the apostle Paul had trouble getting a visa!  So we are not alone in our difficulties.  This is the man who was lashed 5 times, beaten 3 times, stoned and shipwrecked three times! (2 Corinthians 11:24-25).

Some of us are happily in faith for God to miraculously open doors for us and give us incredible opportunities to minister, but most of us really struggle – to raise funds, get work permits, see ministry breakthroughs.

We wonder why we lack faith or what we’re doing wrong, and grapple with feelings of failure as a mission worker.  For us, the going always seems to be hard.  At every turn something seems to go wrong.  Kids get sick.  Someone gets arrested.  There is robbery and violence.

For us, the encouragement is that Jesus warned us it would be like this: “In this world you’re going to have big trouble” (John 16:33a).

Oh joy.  Thanks Jesus.  He explains why it’s going to be hard: “The world hates you because I chose you” (John 15:19).

In other words, we’ve joined the wrong gang.  This world has its way of doing things, and if we don’t go along with it, we’re in trouble.  But we’ve joined another gang.  The world’s gang leader doesn’t want us to get away with that because others might go along with us, so we’re subject to reprisals.  He’s going to attack us at every turn.  He’s going to discourage us.  He’s going to stop us spreading the message of freedom.  He wants us to become so despairing that we give up, go home and live comfortable, uncontentious lives and think it was all a bit of a mistake to go into mission.

But we’re not going to do that, are we?  Because we know it’s tough.  We knew we weren’t signing up for a cabin on a cruise liner but a bunk on a troop ship.  We know we’re on the winning side, because Jesus said so: “Take courage: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33b).  And he didn’t overcome it with six legions of angels.  He overcame it through his suffering.  And in our suffering, we join with him in both his suffering and his overcoming.

So the next time our work permit is cancelled, our funding fails, our building is bulldozed or we find ourselves in prison, here’s a prayer:

 

Lord Jesus, I have trusted in you in good times and in bad.

I cannot see how my current situation will bring glory to you,

but I choose to trust you again.

Thank you for this opportunity to reveal you

to the people around me

through my words, my actions and my attitudes.

I invite you to work in me and through me for your glory,

so that your kingdom may advance in me and through me.

“We were prevented…”

Paul’s Macedonian Vision

Much frustration, confusion, anger and loss is incurred by mission workers who find their plans thwarted.

Perhaps a family need draws us back home from the field.  Some of us inexplicably lose visas and are given 48 hours to leave a country we’ve lived in for 20 years.  The risk of terrorism forces our evacuation.  A sending agency decides to pull out of a given location.  Our funding falls to an unsustainable level.  The list goes on.

Each time something like this happens it causes trauma.  It is accompanied by complex emotions of guilt, loss and regret.  But there is also confusion in our spiritual life.  Did we hear God correctly?  Why didn’t God provide?  Has God changed his mind?  Did we get something wrong?

I wonder if those thoughts were troubling Paul and his companions as they tried to continue with their second missionary journey but found doors closed.  Acts 16:6-9:

They passed through the Phrygian and Galatian region, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia; and after they came to Mysia, they were trying to go into Bithynia, and the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them; and passing by Mysia, they came down to Troas. A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing and appealing to him, and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 

We can only speculate why (and how!) God wouldn’t let them into the various places they tried to go, and why God didn’t give Paul that dream earlier, but we can infer that there was some unexplained purpose in a short time of confusion.  An analysis of the “we” and “they” sections of the narrative shows that Luke wasn’t with them at this time – perhaps they had to go to Troas to add him to the team.

When we are confused and disorientated by rapid changes, we can draw comfort that Paul and his associates have been in the same place.  But we can also reflect on some possible reasons why God might do things like this:

  • God wants to move us on to a different ministry, but we’ve been so committed to the one we have that we couldn’t imagine something else
  • God is moving us out of the way so that others can take over the work we’ve been doing
  • God prevents us from building up pride in our own ministry, or even in our ability to listen to him
  • God is reminding us that he moves on, and he wants us to be ready to move with him
  • God’s plans for us are so big that we couldn’t conceive initially of what he could do, so he started small
  • God undermines our security in role, position, authority, home, church and our own anointing so that we place more of our security in him.

These and many others could be the reasons why things appear to have gone wrong for a time.  We may never know the real answer this side of eternity.  I personally draw comfort from the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness – when the pillar of smoke/fire moved, they moved, and when it stopped, they stopped.  When they set up their tents they didn’t know if it was for a night or a year, and they didn’t know why they were in that particular place.  They didn’t need to – they just stayed close to God.

The Alpha Leader is not what you think

Frans de Wall has spent 40 years working with chimpanzees, studying their emotions and relationships.  In his book Chimpanzee Politics (1982) he coined the term Alpha Male, but he insists that this term was so misinterpreted that in his latest book, Mama’s Last Hug, he has written a chapter explaining how the concept was completely misappropriated.

Apparently, the Alpha leaders among chimpanzees are seldom the domineering, aggressive bullies we connect with leaders who force their way to the top of the tree – these ones are frequently dethroned by coalitions of their underlings.  The most successful Alphas get there by forming mutually-beneficial alliances.

More importantly, the Alphas defend underdogs, comfort the distressed, maintain peace and resolve disputes.  Significantly, they hug others more than any other chimp in the pack.  The underlying message is that the most effective leaders care for the weak, build teams and ensure unity.  Where have we heard that before?

Jesus would not be the first person we think about when we hear the words alpha male, but clearly as the greatest ever leader he embodied the traits outlined above.  He washed his disciples’ feet, a task so demeaning that some rabbis argued that no Jews should do it, not even a Jewish slave.  He then told them:

“If I, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

(John 13:14)

We are understandably squeamish about the physical washing of other people’s feet, so we prefer to interpret this today as prioritizing care for the most needy, which is exactly what Jesus did.  St Paul was clearly keen to do likewise (Galatians 2:10).  He is often portrayed as more alpha male than Jesus, but look at how he claims he led the Thessalonian church – “gently, like a nursing mother tenderly caring for her children” and “exhorting and encouraging each one, just as a father would his own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:7, 11).

So why is it that we, who are committed to defending the marginalized, promoting harmony and building teamwork, still end up with some leaders who appear to have pushed their way to the top and seem intent on staying there by force?  Where are the community builders who with meekness and humility forge and unite a team, and lead with gentleness rather than drivenness?

Becoming meek is an outworking of the Holy Spirit in our lives.  It takes time, and active co-operation with God at work in us.  Frequently it requires elements of withdrawal from work, community and daily life in order to reflect and to listen to God as we process the things that happen to us.

So the meek, far from inheriting the earth, may be overlooked when leaders are being selected, because they are not so visible, possibly seen as not so competent, and therefore can more easily be overlooked than those whose confidence makes their presence felt wherever they go.  The more visible candidates may seem as if they present strong leadership qualities, but this may end up being at the expense of their own people.

The real alpha leader is probably serving right there on the sidelines, picking up the pieces of broken team members and working to maintain team cohesion.  Though he or she may never be recognized as a leader, they may be achieving more for the team than the leader in whose shadow they serve.

Mourning

Mourning is something that many western cultures don’t do well.  Unlike our Mediterranean neighbours, or more expressive people from tropical climes, we think holding our feelings in check is a Good Thing.  “Stiff upper lip, old boy.”

Christians are often even less inclined to mourn than others, because we have a sure and certain hope that our departed have gone to be with Jesus.  We use terms like “promoted” to express our positivity.  I was even once told by a family member at a funeral that we were not going to cry, because it was a happy day of celebration for our friend who had gone to a better place.  Which left me with a lot of grief and no outlet for it. Sometimes we need to express our emotion and have a good wail.

Mourning is healthy.  Expressing our grief is part of how we cope with loss, and being real about our emotions is important.  People who can grieve unreservedly can come to terms with their loss more effectively.

But this blog is not just about confronting our bereavement.  It’s about loss in every sense.  And we mission workers have to deal with an awful lot of loss in our lives.

We often don’t recognise as loss the things we have sacrificed, because we’re serving the Lord and the joy of being faithful servants more than compensates us.  But sometimes our perspective of willingly laying down our lives in service to Him who laid down his life for our salvation can be a bit like refusing to grieve at a funeral: we never come to terms with our loss because we’re always trying to be positive.

Recognising what we have lost, and mourning it, helps us to continue in emotional health and be resilient, as well as being realistic about the cost of following our call.  So let’s look at some of the things we might want to mourn:

  • Close friendships we are unable to continue with in person as we move to a foreign country
  • Places that were once familiar haunts which have changed beyond recognition while we were abroad
  • The spouse or children we never had because we couldn’t find a suitable partner willing to serve in the remote location we felt called to
  • The physical health we could have had if our illnesses had been treated in a modern western hospital
  • Relatives we never had a chance to say goodbye to because they died unexpectedly while we were on the other side of the planet.
  • Professional skills which have grown out of date due to lack of opportunity to develop them
  • The sense of belonging in a certain place that we’ve come from and will one day have to go back to and feel like strangers
  • Grandchildren we don’t have a chance to get to know well because they’re growing up in a different country
  • Friendships in the field that always struggle because our home assignments never coincide
  • The house which the whole family calls home and our adult children can still come back to stay in their childhood bedroom
  • The wealth and security offered by a good career
  • The formative years of our children which we miss a large part of because they’re away at boarding school.

Most mission workers I know will look at such a list dismissively and say “It was a small price to pay for the privilege of serving God”, and in one way they are right.  Paul wrote for all of us when he said “all those things I have lost count as nothing to me” (Philippians 3:7).

But all of us should take time to think about the things we have lost, recognise them and grieve appropriately rather than spend our lives in denial.  David rightly said “I will not give God something that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24).  Recognising and mourning the loss helps us to give God something of value, rather than something that wasn’t important to us anyway.

 

Flatlining?

I recently came across the expression “to practise resurrection”.  Not in the sense, presumably, of the  film Flatliners, a 1990 film (remade unsuccessfully in 2017) in which Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland and Kevin Bacon attempt to artificially create near-death experiences.

The suggestion I was reading about is that since we know we will be resurrected with Christ, we should endeavour to bring as much of that experience from the future into the present, rather in the same sense that the Kingdom of God is here and now and not just future.

So how do we practice resurrection?  We could start with Paul’s remarkable comment in Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life that I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God…

So if I take Paul at his word, I’m already dead.  The life of Christ is being lived out through me.  How this works in practice is further expanded in Colossians chapter 3, which tells us we have been ‘raised with Christ’ and gives lists of the attitudes and behaviours we should intentionally adopt, or avoid.

Dead people have no possessions, no hopes and dreams, and no desires.  If I am truly dead, I too will have laid all those things aside and kept only what Christ has given back to me.  As many mission workers through the centuries have discovered, abandonment to Christ alone sets us free from the shackles of our own ambitions, wants and property.

Dead people also are invulnerable to temptation.  The flesh has no control over them.  Shortness of temper, gossip, gluttony and lust have no power over them.  If I am truly like the dead, I will master the many temptations to sin that come my way daily.

It is not as easy to be a living sacrifice as a dead one.  While my death with Christ may be metaphorically true, my ego still lives on in this body he has chosen to live his life in.  And that is actually good, because we are not called to be zombies for Jesus, reanimated bodies with no life of their own.  For the time being we are in symbiosis, as I pointed out last month.  The object of the Christian life is not, like a Buddhist, to annihilate the self so that it gets consumed by the divine, but to attune myself so to the divine that we can operate as one without extinguishing my identity.

So we live on in the flesh, daily practising what it means to die to self and live in Christ.  How does that impact on our leadership style, as we learn to lead humbly and accountably?  How does it impact on our followership as we learn to set aside our own pride and ambition?  And how does it affect our daily witness as we live out our love for our brothers and sisters while working in a multi-cultural team?

As we lay aside our old way of doing things and put on the new way (Colossians 3:9-10), we bring some of the future Kingdom of Heaven into the present.  Maybe we’re trying to create a near-death experience after all?

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

Colossians 3:3

Who?

I recently came across a commentary on the life of influential mystic and author Evelyn Underhill in which the author suggested that central to her thought and writing were two questions: who is God, and who am I.

Most of Syzygy’s readers will know God… to a certain extent.  We will know about God, have our understanding of the Trinity honed in good churches or Bible Colleges, we will have a personal relationship with God, and probably a sense of calling to what we are doing now.  Though none of us can say we really know God.  What mortal soul can truly plumb the depths of the infinite Deity?  We can only know what God graciously self-reveals.

We will probably know ourselves well.  We may have done Belbin, MBTI, Enneagram, Birkin and many other self-awareness exercises.  Hopefully we know ourselves well enough to tell which of our buttons are being pushed, and emotionally intelligent enough to respond in a measured and godly way when under pressure.  Yet few of us can truly know ourselves – we are so complex that when we think we know ourselves, we probably don’t.

Philosophers have spent lifetimes trying to answer these questions, but with respect to both them and  Mrs Underhill, those two questions only lay the foundations on which a third question rests.  This question is “Who are we?”  Who are God and I together, or – even better – who are God and our community, team, or family together?

We have blogged before on the concept of symbiosis, to illustrate the Pauline doctrine of Christ in me/I am in Christ(Colossians 1:27/2 Corinthians 5:17).  But what does it really look like for two beings, one eternal and omnipotent, and one transient and feeble, to combine in one frail body with the result that glory is brought to the One without extinguishing the individuality of the other?  This, surely, is the big conundrum for all of us in mission: how can we become so united with God that we are transformed sufficiently for the outcome to be striking to those we minister to?  How does ‘our’ ministry become God’s ministry through us?  How are we involved without interfering?

We see glimpses of such transformation in the lives of some of the Apostles, or later saints like Francis, or maybe even contemporaries like Mother Teresa.  What they show us is how to walk away from all worldly attractions so that we are truly free to abandon ourselves to the Lord.  As we do so, we are filled with him in a way that we cannot be when we keep our hands full.

Or to rephrase that in a more contemporary way: how can we live in such a countercultural way that those around us find their preconceptions about life and Christianity so undermined that they have to find out more about what motivates us.  Perhaps that is the key to 21st century mission: not changing the message but changing the messenger.

Together?

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Together is a word many of us love.  We enjoy being together, doing together, talking together, worshipping together.  But our Western idea of together is a very individualistic understanding: a voluntary, non-committal, temporary association in a shared activity which doesn’t compromise our individuality.

The church, despite its language and possibly even its hopes, has a tendency to reflect this individualism, and so can mission training establishments and sending agencies.  As a result, our mission workers are often in the same mould, and may struggle to appreciate the community dynamics of some of the cultures where we minister, in which tribe, community and family are more important than the individual.

I have had several conversations with mission workers expressing frustrations at the demands local believers place on them – yet those demands often stem from their different understanding of the nature of church, which we encourage by our use of words like ‘family’ and ‘brother’, which can mean so much more in their culture than they do in ours.

In many ways, such cultures are far closer to the Israel of Bible times than they are to ours, and if we think more corporately as we read the Bible, we will see less of the western personal salvation which we are accustomed to, and more of a community being saved.  For example, Paul’s revolutionary theological revelation of the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).  As westerners when we read that, we tend to assume it means “Christ in me”, which is indeed compatible both with our understanding of our individual personal salvation and the subsequent verse 29 where Paul goes on to talk about God’s power working in him.

But the culture of that day, and the people to whom the letter was originally written, would have been far more likely to read that as “Christ in us”.  In those communities, where people were regularly in and out of one another’s houses (Acts 2:46), understanding themselves as part of a body (Romans 12), and experiencing profound love for one another (Colossians 1:4), an individual expression of their faith must have been unthinkable.  They were a new nation, a new family.  Christianity may have supplanted their previous commitments but didn’t change their understanding of how they fitted into community and family.

Perhaps we would have more impact on such cultures if we intentionally adapted our thinking so that our understanding of “together” was a binding, permanent, committed, irrevocable sharing of all that we have and are with our new family.  Maybe then they will know we are the disciples of Jesus because they will see our genuine love for one another (John 13:35).

 

Removing the rocks

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I have blogged before about sowing in hope and about sowing what we will not reap.  As mission workers we sometime need these encouragements when it seems that ours is a thankless task bearing little fruit. Some of us are working hard and faithfully in places where it is hard to be in faith for even one person to express an interest in the gospel, let alone a mass movement to Christ breaking out.

Recently a retired mission worker told me that in his youth he had met an elderly mission worker who was hard at work but apparently achieving little.  As young enthusiastic recruits are liable to do, he asked the old man what he thought he was achieving.  “I’m not even planting the seed of the word,” came the reply.  “I’m still moving the rocks out of the field”.

We need to be aware that wherever we are ministering, we might inadvertently be placing rocks rather than removing them.  If we do not live like the locals, dress like the locals, eat like the locals, we may be unintentionally building barriers rather than bridges.

So what does removing rocks look like?  We should be asking ourselves – and our local contacts – what we communicate about Christianity that might actually put them off listening to our testimony.  So if we can address those issues, we may stand more of a chance of being seen as religious people they can engage with.  Part of their misconception about Christianity will be that they assume what they see in western media is Christian.  We ourselves are only too aware that television and movies seldom present Christianity well, but Christians are often perceived as decadent or immoral by others for whom this is their principal way of seeing the West.

Some of the things we could think about doing which might remove some rocks could include:

Prayer.  We pray so constantly and naturally that we hardly notice it.  We hold regular prayer meetings which take place in the privacy of a home or office so others don’t see it (Matthew 6:5).  But in some cultures where prayer is much more obvious or regular, they don’t necessarily realise we pray.  So if we very obviously and regularly stopped to say a prayer, they may well realise that we too are a people who take prayer seriously.  Moslem people might be more impressed with our faith, for example, if they knew we stopped to pray 5 times a day!

Fasting.  Some cultures, notably Islamic ones, make a big thing of fasting at certain seasons.  They do not see us fast, even if we do, because we try to keep it secret (Matthew 6:16).  But if we made more of an obvious effort to keep Lent, it would be a great opportunity to show people that we take fasting seriously.

Giving.  In line with the passage in Matthew quoted above, we try to keep our personal giving quiet as well.  But our giving is not only financial, but in our support for the needy.  Jesus also taught us to let people see our good deeds so that can glorify God (Matthew 5:16).  We are understandably reluctant to trumpet our acts of charity like Pharisees, but we do need to let them be seen.

Furnishings.  I have blogged before about how western architecture and décor don’t necessarily communicate spirituality to people of other cultures.  Even something as simple as having book stands to keep our Bible off the floor will show that we are people who treat it as sacred rather than just another book.  Removing our shoes when entering a place of worship might communicate something about reverence as well.

Clothing.  Much debate has taken place over how we should dress in order not to give offence, but just fitting into a local culture is a start.  This is the reason Hudson Taylor wanted the CIM missionaries to adopt Chinese dress.  I am known for preferring shorts to trousers, but in the Moslem community in which I currently live, I never wear shorts outside even for a quick visit to the shops.  Similarly, when I worked in Thailand, I shaved off my beard because Thai people don’t grow them, but grew it longer when living among people who do grow beards.

Attention to such simple things as how we appear to and behave with the people around us is the first step in removing the rocks.  St Paul summarises this strategy as:

I have become all things to all people, so that by all means I can save some.

(1 Corinthians 9:22)

Name your heroes

“Hudson Taylor”

As regular followers of Syzygy will be aware, we have four cars which we lend to mission workers on home assignment in the UK.  You can read more about this on the Syzygy Cars page.  By the grace of God we have been given money – and cars – generously which has enabled us to have very nice cars, but an interesting problem has emerged: we now have two VW Passat estates and we occasionally get confused about which one we’re talking about.  So we have tried calling them 57 and 58 (referring to the registration number), or could simply use their colours, blue and silver.

But we’ve decided to give them names.  And we’re choosing names which will honour our missionary heroes.  We’re calling them CT Studd and Hudson Taylor.  And just to keep things balanced, the other two are being called Gladys Aylward and Amy Carmichael.  Which prompts me to wonder who are your missionary heroes, and why?

They may not be giants of the faith, but then most of us aren’t.  They may not have got everything right, and none of us do, not even the great missionary apostle St Paul.  They may not have seen many converts themselves, like David Livingstone, but their faith inspired others to incredible acts of service for God.

One of my own personal favourites is an old man I met in Mozambique.  He had spent many years as a mission worker in Brazil before retiring and returning to England.  When he was 80 he asked God for 10 more years of life so that he could resume serving as a mission worker, and went to start a new work in Mozambique.  So much for a quiet retirement perfecting the golf swing and maintaining the garden!

Who are your inspirations?  If we are truly standing on the shoulders of giants, do we know who the giants are, and what contribution they’ve made to our lives?  Are we able to emulate them in their strengths, while being fully aware of their weaknesses and avoiding them?  And if they are still alive, have we thanked them?  And if not, how do we honour their memory?

A lingering fragrance?

A while ago I picked some delightfully fragrant flowers which I left in a vase in the kitchen for quite a while.  They filled the whole room with a sweet smell which was almost like incense.  It lifted my spirits every time I entered the room.  But after a short time the flowers, unsurprisingly, withered.  Yet the fragrance remained for a long time after.

I wonder what remains of us when we move on to somewhere else.  Is it a sweet fragrance or a bitter aftertaste?  Do people miss us or are they glad we are gone?  Paul suggests that this can work both ways.  He says in 2 Corinthians 2 that we are the “sweet aroma of Christ”, but points out that while the aroma is attractive to those who are being saved, it is repulsive to those who are not.  In the same way, the presence of Christians, the expression of our belief, and the tolerance of our faith are obnoxious to some.  And sometimes they have a point – our behaviour can actually repel people if we are too judgemental or outspoken.

A better approach is softly softly.  It is wise not to get drawn into arguments with people like this but simply to let them see our behaviour at its very best.  Proverbs 15:1 says “a gentle answer turns away wrath” and Peter encourages us to:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

(1 Peter 2:12)

Actions, as is often pointed out, speak louder than words.  They echo long after we have gone.  I wonder how much of aroma of Christ we leave behind in other people’s hearts.

Build a RAFT!

Is this going to help you survive?
Source: www.freeimages.com

We have written about the challenges of re-entry on a number of occasions but so far we have not introduced our readers to the RAFT.  This helpful analogy was introduced by David Pollock* who was an expert in transition.  His point was that the RAFT helps us leave well, so that we don’t feel we have unfinished business when we arrive back in our passport country.

Imagine a RAFT made of four logs lashed together.  Each log represents a different aspect of an emotionally-healthy departure.  They are:

Reconciliation.  It can be tempting when we know there is tension between us and someone else to just leave it, since we won’t be seeing them again.  But St Paul writes “Live in peace with everyone, as far as it depends on you” (Romans 12:18).  In other words, whether it’s your fault or not, you take responsibility for sorting it out.  Take the time to restore damaged relationships, to repent and ask (and offer) forgiveness.  Failure to do this can lead to a feeling that there is unfinished business which prevents us getting closure.  Unresolved issues can also overshadow the development of new relationships in our destination.

Affirmation.  Often people want to thank us for what we’ve done and what we’ve meant to them.  It may not fit our culture well and we might be embarrassed to hear people say nice things about us (let’s face it, we usually wait till the funeral to say them) but in some cultures it’s appropriate to honour people publicly and effusively.  Likewise we should be prepared to honour others and thank them for their work, welcome, and contribution to our lives and ministry.  Give cards or farewells gifts to people so they have something to remember you by.  It demonstrates that we value people.

Farewells.  Make sure you say goodbye properly to everyone.  Not just with one large party where you don’t have time for anybody, but with individual meals.  Make sure you give people quality time.  Try to finish your ministry responsibilities long before your departure so you have time for everyone – and for recovering from the emotions of saying so many goodbyes.  Also say goodbye to buildings, places, pets that have been special to you, and belongings you will be leaving behind so that you are consciously severing any nostalgic links you have to places as you move on.  And hold a ‘decommissioning’ service.  Transition is easier to cope with when there is a ritual element to it, so leaving well should include a way of handing over well.

Think Destination.  In the busyness of saying goodbye, selling or giving away belongings and handing over ministry, it can be easy to forget the flip side of leaving – re-entry.  Good preparation for re-entry can help ease the transition by resolving in advance all the issues about where you’re going to live, school your children, what support you will need as you transition and who will provide it.

By building a sturdy RAFT, you will have more chance of surviving the perilous journey ahead!

 

For further advice on leaving the mission field, see our helpful Guide to Re-Entry

  • Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds (Pollock, David C & van Reken, Ruth), Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2nd Ed. 2009, ISBN: 978-1857885255

Suckers!

Those people who have roses in their gardens may occasionally come across a new vigorous growth coming from low down in the plant.  They may well rejoice at the new life in the plant, but they would be wrong to.

It’s most likely a sucker.  These are shoots coming off the wild root onto which a cultivated rose has been grafted.  If allowed to grow it will take all the energy from the roots and gradually starve the rose, which will wither and die, leaving a wild rose in its place.

What has this to do with mission work?

Common to all Christians are the habits and thought patterns we got into before we were saved.  We may have had struggles with addictions, an exaggerated tendency to despondency, fear of failure or a possessive need to be loved.  When we become Christians, in theory our life has been transformed.  St Paul talks about us being ‘dead to sin’.  He tells us we have been buried with Christ through having been baptised into his death, so that we can walk in newness of life (Romans 6). But he also writes: ‘Lay aside the old self… be renewed in the spirit of your mind… and put on the new self’ to people who were believers and who presumable had already been baptised (Ephesians  4:22-24).

So there is still something for us to do to facilitate our transformation into being a new creation (Galatians 2:20).  Sometimes those old habits come creeping back, like the sucker on the rose.  Many of us make the mistake of thinking that a given negative action in our lives was an isolated act of sin, repent of it, and move on.  But the same ‘isolated’ act then occurs over and over again, becoming a weakness, and eventually a gaping hole in our armour.

In the same way, a good gardener will cut off the sucker as soon as she identifies it, but it will grow back again and again and again.  Because the problem is not the sucker, but the root it grows from.

Changing the metaphor slightly, Christians are wild olive branches grafted into the cultivated olive tree (Romans 11).  But just as with the rose, there is a tendency for the old wild plant to reassert itself.

For mission workers, often under great stress and feeling isolated or lonely, it can be very tempting to fall back into old habits.  They bring us short-term comfort even though we have the challenge of the guilt we carry with us.  They become our secret sin, and we lie to ourselves telling ourselves it’s alright because it’s just a method of coping with the stress.  But sin grows, like the sucker, sapping the life of a beautiful rose.  And one day it will be seen by everyone for what it is – bringing down our ministry, our family, possibly even our own walk with God.

We need to tackle the root of the flesh which makes us vulnerable to such sin.  We need to see it for what it is, expose the lie it is telling us, and root out the base desire.  Sometime we need help with that – prayer partners, accountability partners, even deliverance ministry.  If you would like to have a confidential discussion with Syzygy about this, email us on info@syzygy.org.uk.

A good tree cannot produce bad fruit; a rotten tree cannot produce good fruit.

(Matthew 7:18)

Footprints in your soul

Anyone who has done any amount of walking in the hills will be aware that many footprints leave a mark on the landscape.

The least trod paths are denoted by shorter grass.  Those used a little more have grass worn away into bare soil.  More use starts to wear away the soil and form ruts, and this is where real erosion starts.  Water seeping down the mountainside finds its way into the ruts and runs more easily downhill, eroding the remaining soil.  Stones are exposed and come away, leaving a great gash in the mountainside which becomes an impromptu stream and needs repairing before irreparable damage is done to the landscape.

Mission workers may be less aware of how words can cut channels into their souls in a similar way.  Each negative comment can leave a footprint behind.  Repeated often enough they can become a rut which begins to shape our thinking.  Innocent words will run into that rut causing even more damage.

So a child who hears “You’re stupid” will be hurt.  If it’s said often enough she will get used to hearing it, and start to believe it.  Continue hearing it and even a casual comment like “We don’t do things like that around here” will be heard as “You’re stupid”.  The child will either become completely crushed, expecting people to realise she’s stupid, or she’ll fight back, and try and prove them wrong.  Both responses are unhelpful to her ongoing psychological health and the relationships she forms.

In the transactional analysis method of psychotherapy, expressions such as “You’re stupid” are known as scripts.  Like scripts for a play, they are written for us by an author, usually an authority figure like a parent, pastor or teacher.  We then repeat them in an inner monologue, reinforced by others repeating them, until we play the part that someone else has written for us.

Syzygy meets lots of mission workers who are acting out scripts.  Expressions like “You’ll never achieve anything”, “You should hurry up” and “You should work hard” have left a deep imprint in their soul.  Many of them have burned themselves out in the mission field trying either to live us to the scriptwriter’s expectations, or to prove the scriptwriter wrong.  Perhaps you’re one of them.

Recognising a script is half the battle to releasing yourself from it.  Realising that you don’t have to repeat it is the other half.  Just reading this blog has probably made you aware of the existence of a script in your life.  It may take some time to get the second half right, but at least you are now free to exercise some choice in whether you believe the script or not.  Now you can decide not to believe it, not to follow its instructions.

“It was for freedom Christ has set us free” wrote Paul to the Galatians (5:1).  Why wait to live in the fullness of freedom?  Free your mind now from the harmful effects of the negative words spoken to you!

 

Tim speaks about this and other issues affecting our identity in Christ in retreats and workshops called Managing the Stress of Mission.  The next one will be held at Penhurst Retreat Centre in August 2017, and they are available for use as part of team conferences and staff training days on request.

Do single men really not go?

A recent blog on the Crossworld website prompts me to comment on the issue of there being so few single men on the mission field.

It is of course not a new phenomenon in missions but its significance, as the author points out, is that it becomes hard to mentor men for maturity.  It can also lead to a church full of faithful women, which does not seem attractive to male unbelievers because it does not model an image of strong masculinity despite its focus on a male saviour.  So let’s consider some potential causes.

1) Statistics: There are generally fewer men in the church, so fewer are available to go, whether single or married.  In many UK churches the single women outnumber single men 4:1, so there are bound to be fewer single men going. Those single men who do go to the mission field are outnumbered even more, frequently by 8 or 9 to 1.  This increases opportunities for them to marry, so many do not stay single very long.  Thus the problem is perpetuated.

2) Ministry fulfilment: do men have more opportunities for ministry on the home side?  Although the percentage is steadily increasing, women still only make up about 1/3 of Anglican clergy in the UK[1].  In October 2015 Christianity Today reported that around 10% of US churches have women in the sole or senior leadership role (though twice that percentage attend seminary)[2].   Some traditions do not have any formal role for women in leadership.  Perhaps this means that men can more easily find an expression for their Christian service within their home church or denomination, so technically it is not that fewer men are going into overseas mission, but more women, as they seek an outlet for their desire to serve God which is harder for them to find at home.  But the result is that more single women go.

A bigger question is not why there are fewer single men in cross-cultural mission, but what are we doing about it?  Here are some suggestions:

Churches  –

  • Do you actively seek out men you think might have a future in the mission field and challenge them to go? Do you suggest to young men looking to start out on a career that they might consider a life serving God abroad, or even a few years?
  • Do you promote mission as an equal opportunity and not just for women? Do your male leaders model a mission heart or is it only your women who talk, pray or go in mission?
  • Do you tell stories in your sermons of brave and heroic men like St Paul, Francis Xavier or Robert Thomas who took the gospel to far-flung places at great cost to themselves because of their one true love – Jesus?
  • Do we teach a high view of singleness as a way to serve the Lord?  Do your young men have accountability relationships so they have an opportunity to focus their attention on developing godly character?

Agencies –

  • Do your placements seem attractive to single men?  What can you do to make your mobilisation more appealing to them?
  • Are you thinking through what their needs are? Do you try to send teams of men so that there are other men around for them to build friendships with?
  • Do you foster a culture which allows men to express their masculinity appropriately?  Can they truly “feel like a real man” when they are engaged in the activities you co-ordinate?
  • Do we mentor single men in the field so that they can be fulfilled in their singleness and not struggling?

And for all of us –

  • Do we unconsciously model disappointment if our sons sacrifice a good career to go into mission, while we think it’s a great opportunity for our daughters?
  • Do we think mission is a good place for those poor women who have not been able to find partners, but expect men to marry and settle down?
  • And do we pray that more single men will listen to the call of God on their lives and follow him to the ends of the earth – and do we encourage them to do so when we think he’s calling them?

Or was Gladys Aylward right (see John Piper’s Desiring God Podcast) – do the men called to the mission field just not listen to God as well as the women do?

 

[1] Statistics for Mission 2012

[2] http://www.christianitytoday.com/women-leaders/2015/october/state-of-female-pastors.html

Strategic thinking?

We conclude this series of blogs on the successful occupation of the Promised Land by thinking about strategy.

This is a word that is often on our lips.  We need it to make sure our organisation is heading in the right direction.  We use it as a plumbline to check whether new ministries add value to our mission or distract us from it.  We think about it when we start a new endeavour.  Without strategy, we may be doomed to sleepwalking into obsolescence.  But do we overdo it?  Is our missional thinking dominated by secular management theory rather than Biblical values?

In the book of Joshua there is clear evidence of strategy: the Israelites crossed the Jordan, conquered the largest city in the river valley, went up onto the hills beyond and secured a bridgehead, then carried out an offensive to subdue the south before a final campaign to take the north.

Yet nowhere is there any evidence of the Israelites strategizing.  There are no war councils, no boffins, no new weapons.  Their strategist is clearly God, who tells them which city to attack, and frequently even determines the tactics (Joshua 8:2) and took part in the battles (Joshua 10:11-13).  The one time they make a strategic error is when they don’t consult God (Joshua 9:4).  Divine prompting is the key to their success.  Which brings us back to where we usually start each year: prayer.  Because only through consistent, intentional seeking of God can we discern God’s will for our organisations and determine strategy which is often radical, innovative and unorthodox.

Other Biblical examples of divine involvement determining strategy include:

  • Philip preaching the gospel to the first African gentile (Acts 8);
  • Ananias taking the gospel to the enemy (Acts 9)
  • Peter taking the gospel to the first European gentiles (Acts 10);
  • Barnabas and Paul being set aside for their first missionary journey (Acts 13);
  • Paul being led in a dream to take the gospel to Europe (Acts 16);

You can probably think of others.  There are also numerous examples of modern mission workers who just went, not knowing where they were going, following the prompting of God, like Jackie Pullinger.

So if our missionary endeavours are to have the impact in the nations where we work that the Israelites had on taking the Promised Land, let us devote ourselves to prayer.  Our words will be more effective if they are dropped into our hearts by God.  Our attitudes will be more compassionate if they mirror more closely the character of God.  Our actions will be more effective if they are guided by us being ever more sensitive to the Holy Spirit.

We have mentioned before in these blogs the habit of St Aidan and the other Celtic monks who brought the gospel to the Anglo-Saxons, balancing their ministry with their prayer.  Based on a small island cut off from the mainland at high tide, they retreated to the island and slept, prayed and ate while it was isolated.  When the sea receded enough, they crossed to the mainland and ministered to the locals.  Less activity and more prayer made them more effective.  How counter-cultural would that be if we made it our practice today?